Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Homegrown Cassoulet

Here's an old-fashioned pleasure: shelling beans.

We grew a hefty crop of lima beans in a our kitchen garden here in the District of Columbia, about a mile from the White House. I let them dry on the vine and finally just the other day got around to removing the beans from the pods.

I reckon most people have an image of something green and plump when they think of lima beans. But these--Jackson Wonder beans--are a mottled brown and cream color when they emerge from the pod. When cooked, they turn a solid brown. They are luxuriously meaty, and I can't think of a better place for them than in this quick "cassoulet."

A true cassoulet includes sausage and confit of duck and of course beans, all cooked in a lidded pot slowly for a long time. It's pure peasant food. My quick vegetarian version involves cooking the beans first, then baking them in the oven with bread crumbs. All the flavor comes from the beans, which makes this one of the world's finest bean dishes--flavorful and cheap. This time I used some of our own canned tomatoes, making it a very home-grown cassoulet. Then at the last minute I remembered that our friend Bob, on a recent visit from France, had brought us some canned confit.

Canned confit? Don't laugh. We're not usually into canned goods. And I just assumed this variety--Les Recettes de Maite--was the French equivalent of Dinty Moore or something. Just look at the picture of this woman on the label. Some merchandizer's fantasy of a French homemaker, no? But when I started snooping around on-line, I discovered the woman is real. She has a restaurant in a place called Rion des Landes in Southwestern France and apparently makes canned goods on the side. Which makes her closer to the equivalent of Lidia Bastianich--a confit capitalist. Check out her singing website.

In an interview with a French women's magazine, Maite declares that the Southwest has the best ingredients: meat, duck, foie gras. "And with that, you can make miracles." I had some doubts about the confit coming out Maite's can. How good could it possibly be? It's covered in great globs of fat. The meat itself--two large thighs--is shockingly pink and otherworldly looking. But baked with my beans....transcendental. You're eyes will roll back in your head and you would never guess it came out of a can.

So thanks, Bob, if you're reading this: We loved the canned confit.

To start, soak your dried beans overnight. (Use cannellini or Great Northern beans, or something similar, if you don't have these wondeful lima beans.) I had about two cups, and covered them with water in a large bowl to a depth of several inches. The following day I cooked them in a heavy pot with an onion, halved, 2 cloves of garlic, peeled and crushed, 2 bay leaves and a small fistful of fresh thyme sprigs. Cover everything generously with water and cook over moderate heat until the beans are tender, about an our. Drain the beans but save the cooking liquid. You can toss the onion, garlic, bay and thyme.

Next you will need a large onion, peeled and cut into small dice, along with three cloves of garlic chopped fine. Place these in a heavy pot over moderate heat with extra-virgin olive oil or, if you are planning to use confit, some of the duck fat. Season with salt and cook, covered, until the onion is soft and perhaps browned a little, about 10 minutes.

In a large bowl, mix the beans with the onion mixture and 1 pint of canned diced tomatoes. Add a tablespoon of finely chopped sage leaf. Mix everything together and season with salt and freshly ground black pepper as needed. Add pieces of confit, if using, and pour into a ceramic casserole.

Cover the bean mix with reserved bean cooking liquid if you remembered to save it or with chicken stock, preferably homemade. Top everything with a generous dusting of toasted bread crumbs (I used part of a Tuscan loaf from Whole Foods, crust removed and run through the food processor.)

Cover the casserole with aluminum foil and bake in a 425 degree oven until the cassoulet is bubbling, all the flavors have melded and the bread crumbs have begun to absorb some of the liquid, about 1 hour. You can serve this hot, or save it for another day. It will only get better with age.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Have Fire, Will Make Raclette

In my youth, I set a personal best at Raclette with 13 servings. That would be 13 swipes of the knife as you see in this picture, 13 times the cheese was set before the fireplace until it became molten. I don't know what possessed me to perform such a stunt. That was back in my student days, living in Switzerland. Anything like it now would probably induce a heart attack.

But I still harbor a kind of secret obsession with Raclette. Whenever I see a fireplace, I imagine a shortened wheel of this semi-hard cheese positioned before the flames, waiting for that magical moment when the cheese just begins to run. Then quickly lift the wheel and, using the back of a sturdy knife, swipe the melting goodness onto a plate. Give it a good grind of black pepper and serve with simple boiled potatoes, cornichons and cocktail onions.

So it was that I began to conjure up images of a Raclette feast when my sister and her husband found new digs in a rental overlooking the Potomac River in nearby Virginia. This 60s-style bungalow has a cozy little fireplace in the living room. We immediately planted the idea of a Raclette dinner and last night our number came up. I brought a 4-pound piece of cheese, the pickles, the potatoes. Tom, my oenophile brother-in-law, provided the progression of white wines: a lovely California chardonnay, an herbacious sauvignan blanc from Bordeaux, and a wonderfully fruity pinot gris from Alsace. (In Switzerland, some eaters prefer hot tea with their Raclette in the belief that cold wine causes the molten cheese to form a ball in the stomach. Personally, I've never experienced that problem. But apparently, balls of cheese in the stomach are to be avoided.)

The meal itself couldn't be simpler. Tom had already started the fire. I positioned a cinder block in front of the fireplace and covered it with aluminum foil. The open face of the partial wheel of cheese was set on top of the foil to catch any drippings. All that's left to do is wait for the fire to have its effect on the cheese. Then quickly take the cheese in hand and scrape a portion onto a plate. That's the one drawback--or perhaps the charm--of Raclette: Only one person gets to eat the cheese at a time. You have to wait your turn, and that makes this a very casual meal, perhaps best taken while gathered around the fire.

At a certain point enough cheese has been scraped away to reveal a subtantial portion of rind exposed and dangling off the edges. It gets nicely caramelized and crunchy facing the flames. With the sharp side of the knife you can trim this crunchy rind onto the next eater's plate as an added bonus.

You can see why Raclette in its country of origin constitutes a basic peasant food among the cow herders who make the cheese, perfect for winter using potatoes from your root cellar and some of the vegetables you pickled in the fall. By all means serve some of your favorite bread. My sister also made a salad and a chocolate bundt cake for dessert.

You meat eaters might also consider a platter of salamis or perhaps some paper-thin slices of Switzerland's famous dried ham, Bundnerfleisch. Save any leftover cheese for your next fondue.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Cleaning the Bay: They Lied

An expose in today's Washington Post tells how federal and state officials for years have failed to gather the political will to save the Chesapeake Bay, instead feeding the public false information about "progress" in the cleanup effort in order to maintain their funding, to the tune of $6 billion so far.

Officials have long known how rampant shoreline development and runoff from farms, storm drains and industry were destroying the Bay. They've even had the science to solve the problem. But they just never had the guts to tackle the issue head-on. Goals for curbing pollution have never been met. Instead, state environmental agencies and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency were painting a rosy picture of the Bay's health using phony computer models rather than actual data. The truth was, the EPA didn't even have the equipment in place to actually monitor what was happening in the Bay.

Recently Maryland and Virginia officials asked the Bush administration to declare the Bay's crab industry a disaster in order to scare up federal funds to help out-of-work watermen. The Bay's once thriving oyster population has long been in shambles, almost non-existent. Each summer pollution spawns huge "dead zones" in the Bay where the water is starved of oxygen and lifeless.

"It'll always be beautiful," said Bernie Fowler, 84, a former waterman, county commissioner and state senator from Calvert County, who has argued for cleaning the bay since 1970. "But there's nothing out there living."

Environmentalists and watermen have threatened to take the EPA to court to enforce cleanup goals. Otherwise, it's business as usual.

Friday, December 26, 2008

A Christmas Roast

Nothing says meat better than a beef rib roast. In our family, there's a tradition of serving one of these beasts for an early dinner on Christmas Day along with Yorkshire pudding and the mandatory mashed potatoes. It doesn't hurt that one of the sisters-in-law works for a meat distributor in Baltimore. Have you checked the price of beef lately?

You don't do much to a rib roast other than seasoning it aggressively with salt and pepper. Getting it to the table is really more about technique than anything else. Do you like your meat rare? Medium? Well done? It is critical that you know in advance what sort of meat you want to be serving. From there, it's all about timing.

Most of the advice you read about doneness in recipe books is all wrong. In fact, as we prepared our roast for the oven, we read in one book or another that to serve our beef rare, we would need to cook it to an internal temperature of 140. It advised 170 for well done. Either would have resulted in something like shoe leather.

One thing many cooks fail to take into account is that a large roast (even a smaller one) continues to cook even after you pull it out of the oven. A very large roast cooked at a high temperature will build up such a head of steam that it will "coast" for quite some distance. Just sitting on the cutting board, the internal temperature will continue to rise 10 degrees or more. We learned this the hard way at past Christmas dinners, wherein we pulled the roast from the oven at what we thought was an ideal temperature for juicy and rare, only to slice into something closer to well done because we had to wait so long for everyone to get to the table.

Consequently, I've learned to undershoot the temperature a little, and since temperature is so important--really, the only way to gauge a tender roast's doneness--it pays to have a highly accurate and reliable thermometer. If you can afford a roast like this, you can certainly afford the cost of a good digital thermometer, the kind with a probe that you can insert into the roast for the entire cooking time. An oven-safe cord connects the probe to a sensor with an alarm that will sound when your desired temperature has been reached. The sensor usually has a magnet on the back so you can hang it on the refrigerator door and walk away while your meat cooks.

Typically we take the meat out of the fridge and leave it on the counter for a few hours to come up to room temperature. That will speed up the cooking time. This year, our digital thermometer--with the probe inserted squarely in the middle--showed the roast to be 56 degrees cool before we put it in the oven. May aim was to bring it up to 115 degrees for a fairly rare result.

After seasoning the meat top and bottom, I preheat the oven to 500 degrees. A half hour at 500 degrees (meat up, bones down) develops some nice browning and crustiness on the roast. I then reduce the heat to 325. I've read that some beef houses like to cook their rib roasts at very low heat for several hours to achieve that perfectly rosy interior. Using my method, a 12-pound roast is done in about 1 1/2 hours.

If you are looking for something closer to medium rare, shoot for an internal temperature of 120. Once it comes out of the oven, let the roast sit on its cutting board for 15 or 20 minutes so the juices can redistribute themselves. Cut the roast too early and all the juices just run out of it. When it's finally ready and people are seating themselves, I like to cut the meat away from the rib bones all in one piece. This makes for much easier carving at table.

You can separate the rack into individual bones and pass these around the table on a platter. Some of your guests will enjoy gnawing on them as a sort of appetizer. I know I do.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Merry Christmas

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Building a Chowder

There is a world of difference between a true chowder and the soupy, flour-thickened stuff you find in the run-of-the-mill seafood restaurant. My own ideal chowder would recreate what I imagine was a simple, one-pot meal constructed by the fisherman while he was out on the cold, cold waters of the Atlantic, waiting to pull in his lines. It would be made with the simplest ingredients, and not too many of them either.

Note that chowder making once was all the rage in New England. Families and friends would pile into sail boats with their pot and other essentials and make a weekend out of boiling up a chowder while on the beach of some wind-blown island.

What you see here is something very close to my own ideal--not a soup, certainly, and not even a stew. Something closer to a creamy muddle. It's made very simply by layering onions, potatoes, fish and crackers in a heavy pot, then covering it with a seafood broth and baking in the oven. Before bringing the pot to the table, a generous amount of heavy cream is poured into the brew and returned to the oven so that it emerges with a deliciously caramelized top.

This must be a very ancient and widespread technique, because we make a similar seafood stew with Portuguese origins. The basic ingredients are almost identical--onions, potatoes, fish and shellfish--but of course the seasonings are not and there is no cream involved. We love that stew also because it is so simple and everything cooks together, all at once, in the same pot, which then becomes the serving vessel set on a trivet in the middle of the table. It's a wonderful way to entertain a group of friends who are easily satisfied with a bowl of stew and perhaps a simple dessert as well, such as gingerbread cake with whipped cream. Imagine such a meal washed down with a hearty beer, or maybe a tall glass of sparkling wine.

This particular recipe comes from Jasper White's 50 Chowders, one of the best-researched volumes on the subject. If you like chowders and want to know how to make them properly, this would be a very good place to start.

In olden times, a chowder like this would be made with cod fillets, or perhaps haddock if company were coming for dinner. But since cod and haddock have very nearly been wiped out in the Atlantic, and since humankind is working so hard to destroy the rest of the ocean ecosystem, we have to be careful about which kind of fish we use in our chowder. I try to follow the guidelines of the Monterey Bay Aquarium's "Seafood Watch" program.

Lately I've been using hake--it is such a bargain compared to most other fish in the market--but now I find that only certain kinds of hake are considered a "good alternative" by "Seafood Watch." Halibut would be an excellent choice, and I suppose you could also substitute striped bass or even catfish and, as a last resort, farmed tilapia. In fact, you really don't recognize the fish much when the chowder pot comes out of the oven. But it is rather more satisfying to bite into a solid piece of fish, rather than something that has simply disintegrated in the cooking process.

If I have time and some fish bones, I make fresh fish broth or fumet for this chowder. It really is the best and doesn't require much time or trouble. Otherwise, use a quality commercial seafood stock such as Kitchen Basics.

One further note: fisherman used to make chowders with a tough cracker called "hard tack" that later came to be known as the "Pilot Cracker." Nabisco had planned to cease making the "Pilot Cracker" until a group of ladies in Maine rose up in protest. It's hard to find these thick and very plain crackers outside New England. But I found that the very thin and humble water cracker makes a pretty good substitute just crushed with the hand into bite-size pieces.

4 ounces salt pork, rind removed and sliced very thinly
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 large onions, peeled, halved and thinly sliced lengthwise
1 tablespoon chopped fresh thyme leaves
2 dried bay leaves
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
1 1/2 pounds Yukon Gold or similar potatoes, peeled and sliced very thinly
kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 1/2 pounds skinless white fish fillets (such as halibut)
4 ounces water crackers, broken into bite-size pieces
5 cups fish stock
1 1/2 cups heavy cream
chopped parsley for garnish

Pre-heat oven to 400 degrees

Fry salt pork at the bottom of a large, heavy pot or Dutch oven until just browned. Remove salt pork and save for later.

Add to the pot butter, onions, thyme, bay leaves, cloves and nutmeg. Gently saute onions until soft but not browned, about 10 minutes. Remove from heat and let cool.

To build the chowder, put 1/3 of the onion mixture at the bottom pot, followed by half the potatoes, then half the fish fillets, then half the crackers, seasoning along the way with salt and ground pepper. Repeat with another layer, using the final 1/3 of the onions to cover the fish. Pour the fish stock over everything using the handle of a wooden spoon, if necessary, to poke through the ingredients and make sure the stock fills in from the bottom. Place over moderate heat on the stove until the liquid begins to steam.

Put the pot, covered, in the stove and bake until the potatoes are just cooked through, about 30 minutes. Scatter the cooked salt pork over the top of the chowder and pour in the cream. Return to oven, uncovered, for 15 minutes longer, at which point the cream should be browning around the edges.

Ladle the chowder into preheated bowls and garnish with parsley. Serve with your favorite beer or wine. Or perhaps you have a bottle of local hard cider you enjoy?

Monday, December 22, 2008

Sunday in the Nation's Capitol

Hard as it may be to imagine, real people do live in what the rest of the country refers to as Washington, D.C., and what we longtime residents more affectionately know as the District of Columbia. One benefit of living in the capitol city is our proximity to all the attractions on the National Mall. It's a great place to visit on a winter's Sunday afternoon. One of the little gems nestled among the museums is the skating rink in the Smithsonian Institution's "Sculpture Garden."

From here you get dramatic views of the capital building. Now imagine this same space on January 20, filled with a million or more people come to hear the new president's inaugural address.

We were surprised to see the famous carousel outside the Smithsonian's castle-like headquarters building open for business on such a cold winter day. No waiting in line today. We couldn't resist taking a turn.

Just across The Mall is the Natural History museum, famous for the huge, stuffed elephant in its rotunda, as well as the gem collection containing the Hope Diamond. We found a new mammal exhibit with ferocious lions attacking a wildebeast.

Daughter is always anxious to visit the Insect Zoo at the Natural History museum. And this year we found another new attraction: A butterfly exhibit swarming with real butterflies. The enclosure is the size of a small house that from the outside looks like a space capsule. It's filled with bright lights and flowers and hundreds of butterflies flying around freely. It's a toasty-warm place to linger and be amazed.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Kids Make Gingerbread Cake

The aroma of old-fashioned gingerbread baking in the oven automatically signals the arrival of Christmas. With its strange mix of molasses, cloves, nutmeg and other spices, gingerbread is an anachronism. Yet somehow it has maintained its grip on the holiday tradition.

Personally, I don't care much for gingerbread cookies or the stuff that gingerbread houses are made of. But this cake has a wonderful moistness to go with its heft and spiciness. There's nothing difficult about it once you have all the ingredients assembled. And that's part of the fun making it with children--all those ingredients arrayed on the counter top and the extra time and care it takes to mix them all together.

The original recipe calls for mixing first the wet ingredients, then the final batter with an electric mixer. But we found that mixing with a hand whisk worked just as well and was more fun. The original recipe also calls for baking the cake in an 11 by 7-inch baking pan. But our pan was a little smaller and square: 8 1/2 by 8/12 inches. This increased our baking time from the suggested 40 minutes to 52 minutes. The key to doneness is that the cake should be fully risen in the center and should bounce back when pressed with a finger. A toothpick inserted in the middle should come out clean. In a smaller pan, this may mean that the finished cake is a little crispier around the edges, which cook first.

Try serving this cake with plain yogurt or even a dollop of sour cream to cut the sweetness.

2 1/4 cups sifted (9 ounces) unbleached all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons ground ginger
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon ground allspice
1 teaspoon Dutch-processed cocoa
8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, melted and cooled to room temperature
3/8 cup molasses
3/8 cup dark Karo syrup
3/4 cup sugar
1/2 cup buttermilk
1/2 cup milk
1 large egg

Place oven rack in middle of oven and preheat to 350 degrees. Grease the bottom and sides of an 11 by 7-inch baking dish and dust with flour, tapping out the excess. Or spray with Baker's Joy.

Whisk together flour, baking soda, salt, ginger, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, allspice and cocoa in a medium bowl.

Beat butter, molasses, sugar, buttermilk, milk and egg in a large bowl. Add dry ingredients and beat until batter is smooth and thick, scraping down the sides of the bowl with a rubber spatula as needed. (This should take about a minute with an electric mixer, longer if done by hand.) Scrape the batter into the prepared baking dish and smooth the surface as needed.

Place baking dish in oven and bake until the top springs back when lightly touched and edges have pulled away from the pan sides, about 40 minutes. Set on a wire rack to cool for 10 minutes. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Creamed Chipped Ham & Collards

This just proves that flavor doesn't care where it comes from.

In anticipation of boiling some collards, I simmered smoked turkey necks for a long time in a pot of water, then added a ham bone that turned up in the process of catering a client's buffet.

This mongrel broth was not so much to look at. But I was certain it would lend some big flavor to our greens. Just before cooking the greens, however, I remembered a big hunk of leftover ham in the fridge. Now, there are a lot of things you can make with leftover ham. But if you haven't made creamed ham in a while, a vision of dinner begins to form.

Instead of pouring all that mongrel broth in the pot, I set aside two cups to make a sauce for my ham. I sauteed two shallots, cut into small dice, in 3 tablespoons butter. When the shallots were soft, I added 3 tablespoons flour and cooked that gently for just a few minutes. Then I poured in my 2 cups of broth and turned it into a sauce, adding some milk and finally a bit of half-and-half for richness. As you can see in the photo, you are looking for a gravy-like consistency. Add perhaps 1/3 cup crumbled cheddar cheese and stir until it has completely melted. Finally, add your ham, cut into dice, until it begins to look like creamed chipped ham and season it with salt, pepper and a bit of freshly ground nutmeg.

I also had some leftover riced sweet potatoes, so this was lunch: that velvety creamed chipped ham poured over sweet potatoes, with collards on the side. The sound you hear is my wife moaning over the creamed ham.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Rhubarb, a Winter Warrior

The leaves and stems of our rhubarb plants dropped to the ground some time ago, marking the end of another year. But look what's happening. The rhubarb are pushing up new leaves and stems in the middle of December. Rhubarb truly is a cold-loving plant. The District of Columbia, with its horribly hot and humid summers, is about the southern limit for rhubarb. Many varieties will not thrive here. We are growing the green-stemmed Victoria variety from some spare root stock give to us by the Washington Youth Garden.

We are eagerly awaiting the spring, which will mark the third season since we planted our rhubarb. You should wait about three years after planting before harvesting rhubarb very heavily. This gives the plants plenty of time to establish healthy roots. So this year are efforts will finally pay off--rhubarbs sauce, rhubarb pie, rhubarb jam. Just the thought of it will keep us warm through the winter.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Accidental Soup: Turkey & Wild Rice

Sometimes the process of making soup is totally opportunistic. But that is as it should be: soup is the poor man's way of letting nothing go to waste.

In this case, the stock was gleaned from the carcasses of two roasted turkey breasts, scavenged from a recent catering job. I made the stock in my usual fashion--chopping the carcasses into pieces and adding onion, carrot, celery, parsley and bay leaf. A reader recently suggested using leeks in this stock instead of the more common onion. But I can only say we are planning to eat the soup, not make love to it, so why flatter it with such precious baubles as leeks?

In any case, I had been planning to make a soup eventually with this stock using some sort of small pasta from the grocery. But then while rummaging around the pantry I came across a fairly large quantity of wild rice previously purchased in bulk. I cooked some of that in turkey stock until it was puffed out and bursting with flavor. And it occurred to me: why buy pasta, when I had a big pot of wild rice? I went out to the garden and harvested some carrots and some parsnips that have been resting very comfortably in the soil and gaining sweetness in the recent cold weather. And so this soup was born.

Simply saute with extra-virgin olive oil in a big, heavy pot a half a small onion, a couple of carrots and a couple of parsnips, all cut into small dice and seasoned with a teaspoon of coarse salt to bring out the juices. When the onion is soft, add about 8 cups turkey stock, then about 2 cups turkey meat (saved from our heritage Thanksgiving bird) cut into medium dice and 1 1/2 cups (or so) cooked wild rice. Over moderate heat, bring everything up to steaming. Season as needed with salt and freshly ground black pepper and serve in warm bowls with thick slices of a rustic bread. You can garnish the soup with chopped parsley or cilantro, as you like.

I do believe this is one of the most satisfying and flavorful soups I have ever tasted.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Sweet Potato Biscuits

We like to use sweet potato biscuit during the holiday season to make little cocktail sandwiches for a buffet. Simply cut the biscuits open and lay them out assembly line style. We stuff some sandwiches with roasted turkey breast and cranberry chutney. Others we make with a roast ham and grainy mustard.

The biscuits you see here are not sweet potato biscuits but our other favorite, buttermilk biscuits. The recipes are very similar, however, and the standard admonitions apply: Don't work the dough too much, and bake at a fairly high temperature.

The sweet potatoes do give the biscuits a festive air. We use the recipe in Bill Neal's Biscuits, Spoonbread, and Sweet Potato Pie.

2 cups low-gluten all-purpose flour (such as White Lily or Gold Medal)

Heaping 1/2 teaspoon salt

3 1/4 teaspoon baking powder

5 tablespoons chilled butter

4 ounces (1/2 cup) sweet potato, either roasted and riced, or pureed from a can

7/8 cup whole milk

Preheat oven to 475 degrees.

Mix the dry ingredients in a large bowl. Add the butter in pieces and work it into the flour using quick pinching motions of the fingers. The flour and butter should be completely incorporated, until it looks a little like sand. Mix in sweet potato. Add milk and stir until dough forms a ball.

Turn dough out onto a lightly floured surface. Knead lightly, about 10 strokes. Stop as soon as the dough begins to look smooth.

Roll dough out to a thickness of about 3/4 inch, then cut into 2-inch rounds. Place on an ungreased baking sheet and place in the oven until biscuits are lightly browned, about 8 minutes.

Note: My wife thinks the standard oven temperatures recommended for baking biscuits--475 to 500 degrees--are too high. She likes to cook hers at 425 degrees, and I must say, they are delicious: light and airy.

Friday, December 12, 2008


Things are starting to happen under our winter tunnel. The seeds I planted back on Nov. 26 are starting to turn into little plants. Here are the tiny mizuna seedlings, looking much larger than real life once enlarged in the photo editing process.

And here is the arugula, always a pretty reliable germinator. I checked the length of the bed and also found mustards, spinach, collards, kale and lettuce sprouting. Now the question is whether these little plants can survive the deepest part of winter. The days will soon be getting longer, but the temperatures will probably get colder. Lately we've been seeing a range from the mid-20s into the 50s. We really should have planted these seeds in September. Had we done so, we could be harvesting by now.

I'm impressed by the job our Canon Elph camera does with such small subjects. The sharpness of image is there even when blown up several times. Tiny pebbles look like massive boulders.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Parents Night Dinner = Big Success

We had a great crowd of parents, kids and staff at our "Parents Night" dinner celebrating our "food appreciation" classes. With staff plating the food and kids running the plates to the tables, everything moved like clockwork.

As you can see, there's nothing terribly fancy about the dining room. But we do dress the table with place mats drawn by the kids and laminated, plus laminated menus. And this year, you might be able to discern on the table a number of our pickles and preserves. We grouped jars of our dill pickles, sweet pickled green tomatoes, pickled watermelon rinds and pickled pumpkin. Plus, there were jars of apple butter and hot pepper vinegar to go with a very Southern menu:

Hoppin' John (beans & rice)
Collard Greens
Fresh Apple Sauce
Buttermilk Biscuits
Dessert: Apple

We urged the parents to take any leftover pickles home. And we had a selection by the door as well. There was no secret which one they liked best. "Hey, Ed!" Cried one group of parents. "We're on our second jar of green tomatoes!"

Well, I love the pickled green tomatoes as well. But my favorite may be the sweet pickled watermelon rinds, flavored with cardamom seeds. They are nearly irresistible.

The menu represents the beginning of our the virtual world culinary tour in this year's "food appreciation" classes. We started right here in the District of Columbia by pickling and canning our favorite produce. Then we started south, making all sorts of apple recipes in the Shenandoah Valley, then into North Carolina for skillet corn bread, the to Low Country for Hoppin' John and deeper into The South for our collard greens.

I would never have expected this meal to be so popular. But people were coming back to the food line for seconds and thirds. They were so disappointed when we finally served the last of the biscuits.

But there's not a spare moment to gloat over our success. It's already time to start planning for this week's food adventure....

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Our New $20 Bicycle

Yesterday we arrived early at a nearby hippster cafe here in the District of Columbia to select a new (used) bicycle for our daughter, who's almost nine and just keeps growing. Turns out there was not so much competition for the kids bikes, but the place was swarming with young adults oggling and testing the grownup models.

It seemed like such a good idea--and so instantly popular and practical--that I wanted to pass on what this was about. It was three local groups who get disadvantaged children off the streets by teaching them bicycle repair. All three groups banded together for this fundraiser, putting the bicycles up for sale to the public. In fact, it wasn't so much a sale as a "suggested donation." The "suggested" amount for the cute purple bicycle our daughter settled on (or rather pounced on) was $15, but we added another $5 to the kitty as a token of our appreciation.

It all happened very much under the radar, with word spreading via e-mail and neighborhood listservs. Never has the internet been put to better use. I was so impressed, I thought we should give a big mention to the groups involved. Phoenix Bikes is located in Arlington, Virginia. The "Engaged University" out of the University of Maryland runs something called "Reanissance Community Bike Shop" in Riverdale, Maryland. Bikes for the World is sponsored by the Washington Area Bicyclist Association. And they were joined in the effort by the Mt. Rainier Bike Co-Op in Mt. Rainier, Maryland.

A great group effort, everyone. And thanks to Bea Trickett for posting the information at the Brookland Yahoo! listserv.

Meanwhile, also taking place yesterday, students from American University were collecting donated bicycles for Wheels to Africa, a group located in Arlington, Virginia, that sends refurbished bicycles to needy children and other individuals in African countries. Another great, grass-roots campaign.

Let's hear it for pedal power!

Saturday, December 6, 2008

From Our "Miracles of Nature" Department

A rosemary plant, growing out of the brick wall on our front stoop.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Kids Make Buttermilk Biscuits

One of the cleverest culinary inventions was the chemical rising agent. With simple baking powder you can make sumptuous scones, fluffy muffins and airy biscuits--all without the hassle of proofing yeast. This was a real boon to the early pioneers, who obviously didn't have room in their covered wagons for colonies of yeast.

As our "food appreciation" classes continue their way south on a virtual world culinary tour, we had to stop and make some buttermilk biscuits to go with our collard greens and Hoppin' John. The acid in buttermilk easily reacts with the base chemical in baking powder to make our biscuits rise. Another secret is to find a lighter-than-usual flour to make the biscuits lighter than usual as well.

What you are looking for is less protein in the flour. You can do this by combining cake flour with all-purpose flour. Or seek out a lighter all-purpose flour such as White Lily, popular in the South. To make these biscuits, I scoured the local supermarkets and could find neither cake flour nor White Lily (my wife swears the Harris Teeter's store in Virginia sells it, but apparently not the store near us in the District of Columbia.)

But here's a little known secret: the ubiquitous Gold Medal flour also has reduced protein. You can tell by looking at the nutritional information on the side of the package. Gold Medal lists three grams of protein per serving. Virtually every other all-purpose flour lists four grams of protein. So we just used Gold Medal.

Biscuits will come out tough if the dough is worked too much. So just mix it until it holds together. The other requirement is to have a very hot oven and to set the biscuits on the middle rack so that they rise up and bake quickly--evenly--without burning. Our recipe is adapted from one given on the back of a bag of White Lily flour.

2 cups White Lily flour (or use Gold Medal)

1 tablespoon baking powder

1 teaspoon salt

1/4 cup chilled butter (4 tablespoons)

7/8 cup buttermilk

Preheat oven to 475 degrees

In a large mixing bowl, combine flour, baking powder and salt and whisk together well. Add the chilled butter to the dry mix in small pieces, then cut it in with rapid finger movement, pinching the butter and flour together until the butter is completely incorporated and the finished mix is more like sand. Pour in the buttermilk and mix only until the buttermilk is fully incorporated. The dough may still be in pieces at this point.

Pour the dough out onto a lightly floured work surface and press it together into a ball. Knead the dough just two or three times, then roll it out to 1/2-inch thickness or even a bit thicker. Use a 2 1/2-inch biscuit cutter to cut the dough into 12 rounds. Place these on an ungreased baking pan and bake on the middle rack of the oven just until they rise and begin to brown, about 8 minutes.

When the biscuits have cooled slightly, you can use a fork or a knife to pry them open. Spread them generously with butter and serve with the apple butter you canned in October.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Cooking Rice in the Oven

To some of you, this is probably going to sound like a cheap catering trick. Most likely, it is. But when I asked my wife, the catering chef, how she thought I should make rice for 90 people for tomorrow's "Parents Night" dinner where I teach "food appreciation," she didn't hesitate. "Do it in the oven," she said.

She wasn't sure exactly how that should be done. For instance, at what temperature should the oven be set? I toddled around the internet for a few minutes and came up with a plan. The most important thing, it seemed, was that the liquid the rice was cooking in should be boiling before the pan went into the oven. Second, there should be a tight seal on the pan.

You may be wondering why there's a picture of Uncle Ben so prominently displayed here. Isn't the Slow Cook supposed to be exclusively about healthy, long-cooking, whole grain rice? To which I answer: Yes, the Slow Cook is about all those things. Except what I am cooking is Hoppin's John--the Low Country version of rice and beans--and Hoppin' John traditionally calls for white rice (originally grown in South Carolina). I was determined not so serve a gloppy, overcooked mess of rice to our parents. Hence, a chicken-shit resort to good ol' Uncle Ben and his converted rice. Hopefully, it would be true to the label and turn out "perfect."

So I dumped five pounds of rice (about 11 1/2 cups) into a large aluminum catering pan and covered it with 23 cups of a boiling broth made of water and smoked turkey necks. Notice, the cooking ratio is two cups water for every cup of rice. I sealed the pan with aluminum foil and put it on the middle rack of the oven pre-heated to 350 degrees.

Originally, I was counting on the rice being done in 30 minutes. I checked it, but there was still a lot of water in the pan. I checked it 15 minutes later and still it was not done. Finally, about an hour after first putting the pan in the oven, the rice was fully cooked and fluffy, almost spilling out of the pan. And it was, as advertised, not overcooked or gloppy but just as Uncle Ben had claimed: perfect.

So that's how you cook rice in the oven.

Okay, so this is not exactly how Hoppin' John is traditionally made. Usually the rice and beans are cooked together in a pork broth. But this is another catering shortcut: I used canned chickpeas and mixed them into the rice, seasoning with salt. Heretical, I know. Avert your eyes, all you purists! But for the shortcut artists out there, maybe this is helpful.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Accidental Buttermilk Pie

What do you do when the dairy delivers a half-gallon of buttermilk by mistake?

Answer: Make buttermilk pie.

This was my wife's inspiration. Although, if you had nailed my feet to the floor and doused me with hot coffee, I probably could have remembered there was something called "buttermilk pie."

I love the flavor and consistency--somewhere between lemon meringue and coconut custard. It has the flakiest crust and just a bit of ever-so-crunchy caramelization on top. That's because you start the pie cooking at 425 degrees, then lower the temperature.

The recipe comes from Martha Stewart's Pies & Tarts. This book came out before people started to tire of Martha as knowing too much and I definitely recommend getting a copy, not just for the many excellent recipes (I take my wife's word for it--she's the baker in the family) but for the really dolled-up photo of a very young Martha published as an inset on the cover, just below a gorgeous heart-shaped raspberry tart. (Even then, Martha was getting her photo on the cover whenever possible, it seems. Is it fair to say she was using her looks to get ahead?)

We normally associate buttermilk pie or anything else with Southern cuisine. But apparently Martha--a Polish girl from New Jersey--knew a good thing when she tasted it.

For the pate brisee pie shell:

2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon granulated sugar
1 cup cold unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
1/4 to 1/2 cup ice water.

Put flour, salt and sugar in the bowl of a food processor and chill. All ingredients must be cold before proceeding. Then add the pieces of butter and process for about 10 seconds, or until the mixture resembles coarse meal.

Add ice water, drop by drop, through the feed tube with the machine running, just until the dough holds together without being wet or sticky. Do not process more than 30 seconds. Test dough by squeezing a small amount together. If it is crumbly, add a bit more water.

Turn dough out onto a large piece of plastic wrap. Grasping the ends of the plastic wrap with your hands, press the dough into a flat circle with your fists. Rolling will be easier if the pastry is chilled as a ball. Wrap the dough in the plastic and chill for at least an hour.

Use vegetable cooking spray to lightly butter a pie plate or tart pan. On a lightly floured board, roll out the pastry to a thickness of 1/8 inch. Place the pastry in the tart pan or pie plate and press it into the bottom edges and along the sides. Trim pastry using scissors or a sharp paring knife. Crimp or decorate the edges of the pastry, if desired, using your favorite method. Chill the pastry-lined pan until ready to use.

For the filling:
1/2 cups granulated sugar
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
4 eggs, lightly beaten
1/2 cup unsalted butter, melted and cooled slightly
1 cup buttermilk
zest of 1 lemon
1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
freshly grated nutmeg to taste

For the glaze:
1 egg yolk with beaten with 2 teaspoons water

Preheat oven to 425 degrees.

Combine the sugar and flour in a large mixing bowl. Add the beaten eggs and mix well. Stir in butter and buttermilk. Stir in lemon rind and juice, vanilla and nutmeg, and pour into the pie shell. Brush the edge of the pie crust with the egg glaze. Place the pie in the center of the oven for 15 minutes. Lower the heat to 350 degrees and continue to bake for approximately 40 minutes, until the filling is set. Remove from the oven and serve at room temperature.

You'll like this so much you'll want the dairy to deliver buttermilk by mistake more often.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Turkey Stock

You didn't throw that turkey carcass in the trash. Did you?

I hope not, because now would be the time to be making some excellent turkey stock.

I don't spend too much time agonizing over this. One thing I think is especially important is to break up the turkey bones. I take them outside with a big cleaver and a hammer and crack them in two. Break up the rib cage, breast bone, etc., even more.

Throw all the bones in a big stock pot with a couple of large carrots cut into pieces, an onion sliced in half (skin on), two or three stalks of celery cut into pieces, a fist-full of parsley sprigs, a couple of bay leaves and a few peppercorns. Cover everything with a couple gallons of water. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to a gentle simmer and cook for a few hours, or until the stock is quite aromatic and any meat left on the turkey bones is falling off.

Use the stock to make a delicious soup and freeze rest for later.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Portrait of Bob

Our friend Bob, the artist, is in town visiting. I shot a few photos and was impressed with how our little Canon Elph performed with just the available light at night in our kitchen.

I thought the pictures had a certain Old Masters quality--not unlike some of Bob's paintings. Maybe it was just the wine. Bob is a handsome devil and makes a fine photo subject. I suggested he reproduce these in oils on canvass, but he just laughed.

Bob also is a great guest. He eats our pickles with gusto. (Or is that with relish?)